Genius of the Bird Man

Reader David wants to know when people first started thickening pastry cream with corn starch. That’s a question I can answer: 1837.

Or so. 1837 was the year that Dr. Alfred Bird invented his famous “eggless custard.” Dr. Bird is a fascinating character from history, who might have labored in obscurity as a pharmacist in Birmingham, England had it not been for his wife’s delicate digestion. It was because of that that Bird invented corn starch (or corn flour as the British say). Well, he didn’t technically invent the flour, but he was the first person to use it as a thickener for liquids.

History records that Bird simply could not bear to see his wife, who was afflicted both with a love of custard and an allergy to eggs, go without dessert. Eggless custard — basically sweetened and vanilla-scented milk thickened with cornstarch — was the fruit of many long months of labor, though for several years it remained a private household pleasure. Eventually the praise of dinner guests convinced Dr. Bird that there was a market for his custard, and so he founded Alfred Bird & Sons Ltd. to make and market the product. The company and the product are around to this day.

And of course cornstarch has gone on to become a pastry kitchen staple, where it is fundamental to every pastry cream recipe I know. Why? First, because gelated (read: “dispersed”) starch molecules reduce the flow of liquid in pastry cream, giving it firmness and body even though it’s a loose, “stirred” custard. Second, for many of the same reasons it binds up water in a custard, keeping it from weeping. Lastly, it keeps egg proteins from clumping up as temperatures rise thus making pastry cream somewhat curdle-resistant.

Of course corn starch and Bird’s custard weren’t the only arrows in the Bird food chemistry quiver. He went on to invent baking powder, among other things. Quite the talented pharmacist, no?

25 thoughts on “Genius of the Bird Man”

  1. I hesitate to use corn starch, because the taste has always come across so strongly. I had a souffle at a fancy-pants restaurant and it was ruined by that flavor (and really, a correctly made souffle does not need it). Am I wrong, have others only used too much, and it’s actually a wonder I’m missing out on?

    1. I agree that a souffle doesn’t need cornstarch and there are several other starches that can fulfill the same purpose in puddings–in slightly different proportions and for different final heating: arrowroot, tapioca starch and potato starch, as well as flour. Maybe you are more attuned to the taste of cornstarch, but maybe it’s the texture of not-quite-cooked cornstarch that annoys you? It annoys me!

      1. Thanks for that, and to you too, Joe, further down about “cook the starch out.” I may chance some recipes now (though never a souffle).

  2. How interesting! I knew the story about his inventing it for his wife but I had no idea he also invented baking powder.

    So we owe him for all sorts of leavened baking as well as the incomparable Nanaimo Bar. Hats off to you, Dr. Bird!

  3. If you have mentioned pastry cream, I have a question. Recently I made Paris-Brest (thanks for your tutorial, it came out great and my significant other – amateur cyclist – really loved it!) and used pastry cream flavored with praline paste. I used leftovers in eclairs and noticed that pastry cream, once praline paste is added, becomes very thin and runny, although the proportion of paste was not that significant. What is chemistry behind this, and is it possible to avoid such change in pastry cream texture?

    1. Hi Antuanete!

      Nice to hear from you as always. The issue is that the caramel in the praline is turning to syrup the longer it’s mixed with the pastry cream (which is quite watery). This causes the mixture to loosen as you observed. My suggestion is to start with the thicker of the two pastry creams on the site. Or you can reduce the praline paste. Or make your praline with less caramel, which would also help solve the problem. There are several ways to approach it, Antuanete. Do what fits your style the best!


      – Joe

      1. Thank you for explanation, this really makes sense! I will try one of your suggestions next time, I have plenty of praline paste left to experiment with 🙂

  4. Properly used, corn starch as a thickener should impart no taste at all, However, many cooks use too much to save time and leave uncooked corn starch in the final product…. YUCH!!

    We recently had an intern who took it upon herself to double (yes,, double) the corn starch in our blueberry pie filling. Four pies were returned (the only 4 ever!) and 40 or so thrown out, out of 48 made. The other 4 probably represent lost customers.

    Her explanation? It wasn’t thickening fast enough.

    1. Well said, Paul. And I think it’s worth emphasizing your “uncooked” point a bit here. Anytime you’re thickening with flour of any kind it’s critical to heat it thoroughly so that the granules “gelate” i.e. dissolve to a large extent. That not only creates the thickening effect, it brings down the granules’ size so they don’t register on the tongue. Cooks often call this “cooking out” the starch. If you don’t do it, just like Paul says, you get that mealy taste, which ain’t no darn good!

      Thanks for making some important points, Paul!

      – Joe

      1. Hi,
        Unless i missed it somewhere, what do you mean by ‘cook out’ the starch?


        1. Hey Melody!

          I just mean heating starch so you don’t notice the taste or the texture. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.


          – Joe

  5. Which raises an interesting question – if Dr. Bird discovered the thickening properties of corn starch in 1837, it must have been around for him to experiment with. So what was corn starch used for before it was used to thicken custards?

    1. Great question, Jane! Corn starch was a new product in those days, of course an American innovation since corn is from the Americas. Then it was used mostly to starch fabrics. It was used in laundries of course, but also in cotton mills to stiffen newly woven fabric so it could be ironed and sold. All sorts of starches were used for those purposes before corn starch showed up on the scene (wheat, especially) but it quickly gained popularity because it was cheaper and didn’t cut as much into the food supply.


      – Joe

      1. I remember my Mum “starching” the collars on my Dad’s white business shirts , that would have been in the early sixties when I was a little girl. Thanks for triggering the memories.

  6. Hi Joe,

    So now that you have mentioned corn starch, I need to know something. I had a request to make rum cake. Every recipe I found included a cake mix and a box of instant vanilla pudding mix (and a lot of rum). The one recipe I found for scratch rum cake used a homemade instant pudding mix which contained mostly cornstarch and powdered milk. I thought “Yuck”! But, it seems to be a very popular thing to add pudding mix to your cake mix or have a cake mix that includes pudding.

    So my question is what does the pudding mix (“modified food starch” or corn starch) bring to the finished cake product?



    1. Didn’t I send you a recipe already, Eva?

      I’m almost sure I did…let me know.

      – Joe

      1. Hi Joe,

        I checked again and didn’t see anything in my inbox or spam from you. Can you please send it again?

        My first attempt using the boxes was a huge failure! The cake fell something fierce and didn’t absorb very much of the glaze. How can that happen? My baking ego was bruised badly. 🙁


  7. Joe, I am curious, do you think cornstarch in any amount belongs in a proper pouring custard (or Creme Anglaise for those of us without English passports)? Or should it be just milk and eggs.

    1. Hey Dani!

      Good question. While I don’t have a problem with cornstarch per se, I do prefer to go without it for most poured custards. I think you get a purer egg flavor without it.

      – J

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